School Choice & Charters Opinion

Exploring Moral Development in School

By Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily — April 23, 2013 6 min read
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Elliott Witney continues his conversation with Deborah Meier today.

Dear Deb,

I wanted to start by saying that I hope everyone you know in the Boston community through your extensive work there is safe and has been able to weather what must have been an emotional storm over the last several days. I can only imagine how challenging last week was for so many people whose lives you’ve touched directly or indirectly.

In addition to this thought, I wanted to acknowledge how heartening it has been to hear from readers commending our exchange as an attempt to reach depth about a complex range of topics in civilized discourse.

With that context, I want to push us even deeper. For example, is SLANT— as you’ve characterized it—"5 Rules for Success?” SLANT should not be contrasted, as you’ve done, with other techniques schools use to foster social and moral behavior. At the school where I served as principal, we used both SLANT and complex approaches to teaching moral development. After my first couple years teaching, I explicitly referenced it less and less in my own teaching. I was far more focused on how to help 7th and 8th graders both engage in the type of compelling literary analysis required of them in college and develop character strengths that would help them to be productive and happy adults.

I called Rafe Esquith—a close friend and mentor and easily one of the best teachers I have ever met—to get his perspective on SLANT. Rafe has published several excellent, helpful books about his classroom in Los Angeles and his work as a teacher that I would recommend to all educators. I first saw him teach in 1999—Rafe worked with students before and after school on various self-directed projects, such as completing Mondrian-inspired paintings, learning to play acoustic guitar and drums, and practicing lines from a Shakespeare play in the original English. I asked him: “What’s your opinion about SLANT?”

Rafe’s answer, as always, was straightforward. “Elliott, teaching is really hard. I’ve been in this profession for decades. As my teaching has evolved, I rely on some of these tactics and not others. But you better believe that when I first started teaching, I needed any help I could get!”

The teachers at my school didn’t rely exclusively on the SLANT technique to help students develop their character and intellect. We started by trying to build strong, positive, nurturing relationships with every child. Then we spent time trying to help students refine their intellectual reasoning skills and wrestle with the complexities they’d face in life.

You cite Lawrence Kohlberg—presumably his work on stages of moral development. I have been inspired by Kohlberg’s research since Rafe first introduced me to his work in 1999. For anyone reading who isn’t familiar with this body of research, Kohlberg studied why humans make the decisions they make, categorizing their responses into one of six stages of moral development. Stage 1, he would say, shows the least moral development. In a nutshell, Stage 1 is, “I do what I do to avoid getting in trouble.” Stage 6, the highest level of moral development, is this: “I do what I do because it’s my code—rooted in ethical, principled conscience.”

At KIPP Academy MS in Houston, we integrated Kohlberg’s research into the fabric of our school. Starting in 5th grade, we introduced a series of dilemmas to our children and asked them to think about why they do what they do. We presented the following dilemma to our students: Let’s say you need a pencil, and you notice eight pencils on your neighbor’s desk. If nobody was around and nobody would ever know you took a pencil, would you take one? Why, or why not?” Some children might say, “No, because I wouldn’t want to get in trouble” or “Yes, because I know I wouldn’t get in trouble,” which are Stage 1 responses. Others might say, “No, because I don’t steal. That’s not who I am,” which falls into Stage 6. Their responses provide a context to discuss Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Regardless of the answer, our goal as educators was to develop self-awareness in our students and to challenge each child to consider more deliberately the choices they make.

By 6th grade, Kohlberg’s research integrated into a multi-week, interdisciplinary unit focused on the European Holocaust and other worldwide atrocities that culminated with a trip to the Holocaust Museum Houston. Throughout that unit, we asked our students regularly to reflect on points of view of the victims, the perpetrators, and the bystanders. We took these incredibly complex history lessons and applied them to moral choices our children might face daily as students. If you are a bystander witnessing another student victimized by bullying of any sort, for example, what do you do and why?

Our hope in using this holistic approach was to develop in children their own understanding of the “Golden Rule"— their “code"— and to start to challenge them to consider how they might apply it to their own lives. Last spring, I delivered a passage on this theme as part of my address at KIPP Houston High School’s graduation ceremony:

  • To leave a lasting imprint on the world during your lifetimes ... academic skills aren’t enough. This is why we’ve pushed you to wrestle with moral dilemmas that helped each of you figure out for yourself who you are. Are you someone who lies or not? Steals or not? Picks up trash? Holds doors? Expresses thanks to your family and those who have helped you or not? And we’ve tried to open your eyes to some of history’s most hideous horrors, too. Slavery, bigotry, genocide, torture. The types of social injustices that scar families, communities, nations, and continents.
  • You’ve learned who you are and what needs to be done to build a better tomorrow. ... And it doesn’t have to be what we’ve done. Soccer players have stopped civil wars. The Innocence Project is ending wrongful imprisonment. Doctors stopped smallpox. Start an art studio, write inspiring folk music, build a soup kitchen. Or, as I’ve told [a couple of you], make a billion dollars and give it away. Just do something that makes you happy.

The question then naturally shifts to what, in the context of wanting each of our children to build a better tomorrow, does “no excuses” mean? You might ask yourself: “If you try your best to build strong, positive, lasting relationships with children, and if your school was committed to pushing children to wrestle with some of life’s most complex moral dilemmas, how could you possibly identify in any way, shape, or form with the ‘no excuses’ education reform movement?”

For me, “no excuses” was never about allowing children no excuses; it always signified a movement of educators committed to social justice who believe that all children can and will learn if we the adults avoid getting mired in excuses. Clearly, poverty does have an impact on a child’s school readiness. But educators should not use poverty as a reason to avoid challenging young people to achieve academically and reach their full potential.

In 20 years, we have made great progress. When Rafe Esquith started teaching in Los Angeles over 30 years ago, there were only a handful of classrooms achieving transformative results for students living in poverty. Today, there are literally hundreds of public schools—both district and charter—that are proving that zip code does not define a student’s destiny.

Because of this movement, we now find ourselves at a point in which no one in our country can logically argue anymore that students from underserved communities can’t achieve at high academic levels. We still have a long way to go before we see entire school systems or states achieving these types of results with students. We have proof, however, that it can be done.

While there is always room for growth, I am proud of the work teachers at KIPP Academy MS in Houston have been able to achieve both before, during, and now after my time as principal. By building strong relationships with our students, we were able to step up the academic expectations for all our children—far beyond state tests. We also focused on helping students develop the character strengths needed to be successful in life such as grit, curiosity, and zest.

Take care,

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